Ah yes, the night of mystery and magic named for an albino wallaby.

Um, OK, it’s the other way around. She’s named for the saint whose cannonization date is the name of a rather strange night in German. Saint Walburga, or Walpurga, was cannonized on May 1. Thus the eve of her secondary feast is Walburga’s Eve, or Walpurgisnacht. It coincides with a quarter-day, between the equinox and solstice.

The historical Walburga was an English Saxon noblewoman, born around 710. Her maternal uncle and her brother were both missionary priests. When the Holy Roman Emperors began pushing the continental Saxons to convert, the Church decided that sending a Saxon to convert Saxons might be one of the more efficient ways to go about it. Thus we have people such as St. Bonifice, an English priest and nobleman, who traveled to what is now central and northern Germany to found monasteries, build churches, and bring enlightenment to the Heiden (heathen.) They needed support, both moral and physical, and so Bonifice and others invited English nuns to come to manage the convents and provide support for mission work. Lioba at Fulda is one of the best known, at least in Germany, but Walburga was one of the other convent managers, abbess of a double monastery (male and female) at Heidenheim [“Home of the Pagans”]. Walburga died in February 777 or 779. She is credited with healing, and is invoked for protection from rabies and storms. She is often shown with a sheaf of grain, although she is not an “official” patroness of farmers or protectress of the harvest.*

The quarter day marked the beginning of warm weather (at least in theory). It was also the day when, according to tradition, witches and evil spirits flocked to the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, for wild revels. That the Harz had been full of pre-Christian worship sites and is associated with lots and lots of legends is, of course, pure coincidence. That the Ottonian Holy Roman Emperors had to station soldiers there to keep Christians from backsliding is not coincidence. Goethe immortalized the story in the first book of Faust.  Thus Walpurgisnacht became the time for debauchery and infernal revelry. Think of the female spirits in the hands of the night figure in Disney’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and you get what Medieval preachers preached about. St. Walburga would likely not have been too surprised, although she likely would have questioned the smarts of people who went up on a snow-dusted peak to have an orgy. There are recent stories that “Satanists” have tried to take up Walpurgisnacht for activities, sort of like accusations in the US about Halloween, but this far nothing has come of it. People play pranks, have bonfires, and take steps to prevent witches from hexing them.

Thus we have a German Familiar named Walburga**. And Walpurgisnacht.

*There are theories that she was connected with an older Saxon goddess of crops, like Frau Pechta in Hesse, or St. Bride/Brigit in Ireland. It is possible, but the documentation for Walburga is quite extensive.

**Depending on how the German is pronounced, “p” and “b” can be very hard to distinguish.


14 thoughts on “Walpurgisnacht

  1. And I’m sure it’s merely coincidence that the HRE’s soldiers would also ensure that metals and other mined items would keep moving into taxable commerce.

    Thanks for adding the story of St. Walburga; very nice piece that was missing.

  2. I’m reminded of Walgreens, the big pharmacy chain. They have a habit of copying generic over-the-counter medications and naming their versions “Wal-whatever”, usually part of the better-known name of the medication. What if they developed a laxative named “Wal-Purge”, guaranteed to keep you up all night? Voila – “Wal-Purge-is-night”.

    I know, I know . . . I won’t quit my day job!


    • No, no, it’d be something to treat diarrhea: Wal-Purgest-nicht (that gets mispronounced/renamed a bit more for copyright/trademark purposes).

  3. Now why am I seeing St. Walburga staring down two kids who were rescued from freezing after trying to sneak out for a “little fun”? 😉

  4. Um…if she was “cannonized” on a particular date, does that mean she was shot by or shot out of, that day?

    *very teasing smile before ducking and running like hell for cover*

  5. The awkward thing is that there’s lot of evidence for St. Brigit, and very little evidence for a goddess Brigit. There have even been a few people who have opined that the monks of Kildare either made up the goddess Brigit, to give themselves cultural cred, or beefed up her roles considerably in the few tales where she shows up.

    And the goddess doesn’t show up much in tales, and has a rather sappy and soppy personality when she does. Whereas the saint is heroine of tons of tales.

    And they used to think that the wilder saint stories were drawn from pagan Irish mythology, but awkwardly the non-realistic stuff is apparently drawn from Greek and Egyptian saint hagiography. (Ireland got a lot of Coptic refugees who sailed away from the Muslims, which greatly influenced Irish monasticism and filled the libraries with some odd works, and they also got a lot of Byzantine influence through trade.)

    I was really, really shocked to find out that the “hang cloak on sunbeam” motif was Greek, and at least a century or two earlier than St. Brigit. Sometimes research tells you some weird things. And basically, a lot of male Greek/Asia Minor ascetic monk saints were hanging their cloaks on sunbeams, whereas Brigit was the only one doing it in Ireland.

    • Given the weather in Ireland, I can see why so few people would try it, even if they are/were saints. 🙂

      I’m fascinated by what modern people think are “ancient pagan survivals/evidence of the Church coopting paganism” that turn out to be, oh, either the wrong pagans, imported within the Church, or late medieval/early Renaissance creations.

      • I’m sure there are moderns who think the Jews count as Pagan. 🙂

  6. My familiarity with Walpurgisnacht comes from the ballet of that name. Thanks for the information. I wonder if staging Walpurgisnacht has bad consequences, like Rite of Spring does? Going to have to sic my eldest on that.

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